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A new breathalyzer law drives anger in France

A law requiring drivers to have breathalyzer kits has the French seeing red over what they view as lobbying — a practice reviled in the country — by an employee of a test manufacturer.

August 25, 2012|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Lucie Lefevre in Paris keeps a disposable breathalzyer test in her car as required by a new French law.
Lucie Lefevre in Paris keeps a disposable breathalzyer test in her car as… (Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles…)

PARIS — Mention the name Daniel Orgeval in France these days, and an unpopular little device inevitably comes up: the breathalyzer. But lately Orgeval has been thinking about another "gadget" that was once a staple in the country's system of law and order: the guillotine.

"If they were still around today," he says, hesitates, looks straight ahead and raises thin, graying eyebrows, "I start to wonder. About mob lynching. Things like that."

Orgeval, 65, has rings around his eyes, and his face gets a clammy sheen when he mentions the threats people have made against him for his support of the alcohol test. From the looks of Google searches for his name, there is reason to take his claims seriously.

Orgeval has been getting all kinds of credit, and not all of it the good kind, for a new French law that has been met with widespread grumbling, if not disbelief: Every driver in the country must have a personal breathalyzer, or face a fine.

Hoping to decrease alcohol-related driving deaths, the government reasoned that the new measure would make some people think twice before driving drunk. They based part of their conclusions on learning that drunk drivers who survived accidents often said they hadn't realized they'd been over France's drinking limit of 0.05% blood-alcohol content (0.025% in the breath), or the equivalent of roughly two glasses of wine. (The legal limit for most U.S. states and Britain is 0.08%.)

Although the law took effect July 1, there is a grace period until Nov. 1, to allow people time to buy the gadgets. After which, if you're unable to produce an operational breathalyzer kit when asked by police (they usually cost 1 to 2 euros), you may be fined 11 euros. Foreigners are not exempt.

When asked about the new rule, French police officer Gerald Lin took a moment from his street patrol to echo a perspective most often repeated by those interviewed for this story. "It's idiotic," he said.

But there was something else about the strange law. It involves a practice so reviled in France that even those who do it for a living are afraid to call it by its name.

That would be lobbying.

"Obligatory breathalyzer tests, are they at the heart of a scheme?" asked a recent headline in the French daily Sud-Ouest. "Suspicions of a conflict of interest in the breathalyzer test market," ran the daily Le Figaro, picking up on the phrasing that spread throughout the Web, and much of the public psyche.

According to reports, the man who heads the nonprofit road safety association that persuaded Parliament to pass the breathalyzer test law is also a part-time employee — at an eyebrow-raising $3,600 a month — at Contralco, the only company in France making certified breath testers.

The name of that man is Daniel Orgeval.

* * *

"It's a scandal," Christiane Bayard, head of the Drivers Defense League, said in reports uncovering Orgeval's so-called double casquette, or dual roles.

"We might have imagined that this association grouped families of victims, or independent volunteers, and we discover that in fact its president is none other than the representative of breathalyzer test manufacturers!"

France is not the only place where the idea of lobbying is distasteful. But here, where the practice is under-regulated and little understood, it is often equated with a sacrilegious mixing of genres: doing business on the one side, and legislation for the common good on the other. Even if the two may mix in reality, many lawmakers would rather not see it that way.

"This debate represents the fact that in France, we don't recognize that we have lobbies in all sectors of society," said Emmanuelle Garault, president of BASE, an association that defends the field of lobbying and its recognition in France (a kind of lobby for lobbyists). She also lobbies for EBay in France, Spain and Portugal. "Since lobbying isn't recognized and regulated in France, it is always seen with suspicion and associated with corruption. It's a four-letter word, just like 'globalization,' even though we also have our part in democratic debate.

"People still don't want official lobbies in France. They are still in denial about this field," she said. Instead of calling themselves lobbyists, groups can use words like "association," "federation" and even "union" to represent themselves to government officials. Garault's favorite alternative for the word "lobbying" is "business diplomacy."

Meanwhile, investigations of accusations of a conflict of interest in the breathalyzer test legislation continue. This was none other than a case of "open-faced lobbying," says the blog Lobbycratie, which researches the influence of lobbies in France.

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